What is a reasonable position for the industry to take in the upcoming Congressional hearings? We have to start with the realization that any proposal must, above all, enhance public health. A plea to help the produce industry will seem self-interested and is unlikely to sway many votes in Congress.
It is also true that the industry must be honest about the vulnerabilities of fresh produce, and that the trade must ask Congress for guidance when the issue switches to the public policy arena.
In the July 2008 issue of PRODUCE BUSINESS, the Pundit wrote a column entitled, The Courage of our Convictions, in which we laid out 10 points the industry should make in speaking to Congress:
1) We recognize that in electing to sell processed product with a representation to consumers to eat without washing, members of the trade take on the role of food processors and ought to be subject to the rules other processors must conform to.
2) We acknowledge that raw produce can pose special risk for those with immature or compromised immune systems. We have adjusted our Web sites and those of industry promotional organizations and, when product is packaged, we have adjusted the packaging to reflect this message.
3) We are committed to delivering safe food. It must be noted, however, that just as cars are generally “safe” and airplanes are generally “safe” — nobody interprets this to mean that there will be no auto accidents or plane crashes — so, the fact that fresh produce is generally “safe” does not mean that nobody can or will get sick from eating fresh produce.
4) We grow fresh produce, generally, in soil; it is exposed to rain and wind, to animals and people. It is the natural state of such a product to occasionally contain pathogens that can make people sick. Much, but not all, of this risk can be avoided by consumers and restaurants playing their part in food safety and carefully washing all produce. In any case, the risk of illness, especially serious illness with long-term effects, is very small.
5) Scientific efforts to advance food safety continue and the industry supports such science financially. We encourage the government to accelerate progress in this area with additional financing.
6) With current science, each enhancement of food safety increases the cost of the product. So we can put animal traps at every 100 feet or every five feet or anywhere in between. Each step is believed to enhance safety, but each step costs money. There is no correct food-safety answer. It is a political decision how much society is willing to increase the cost of these foods in exchange for higher levels of safety, just as it is a political decision to what extent cars should have 15-mph bumpers or 25-mph bumpers.
7) It is the responsibility of Congress and the FDA to express that political choice through laws and regulations. Just as the law may require a 15-mph bumper, so the law for the produce industry may require set buffer zones, soil amendments, etc.
8) The FDA, working with state departments of agriculture, its own personnel or third-party auditors, shall define a regimen of inspection and testing that suppliers can follow to be certified as compliant with food-safety laws and regulations.
9) It shall be the option of the government to decide if non-compliant companies can continue to produce and market product.
10) Farms and other production facilities certified as compliant shall be presumed to be producing safe food unless specific evidence implicates a particular farm or facility. In the absence of specific evidence, they shall be exempt from any “recalls,” “recommendations not to consume” or other health messaging.
Basically, the situation is two-fold: First, since there is no right or wrong answer as to how often water should be tested or how closely traps should be laid in the field, these are now social questions that require social answers. Second, FDA needs a way to know who the “gold standard” producers are so that in its response to an outbreak, the FDA does not divert business from such gold standard producers to those utilizing less effective food safety systems.
This 10-point proposal states the facts plainly and provides a path for public health to be enhanced while ending the damage caused to the industry by widespread bans on different produce types.